On my first day at Mevrou Jacobs’ house, I braced myself for reading a bunch of classics by dead white men, like Moby Dick, or War and Peace. But when we sat down to read, she said, “We’ll start off with something light,” and I changed my mind, to dead white women. Because I have noticed that a lot of people think books by women are easier, lighter reads, than books written by men.

But no, Mevrou Jacobs didn’t want me to read a book by dead-anyone. Instead, she handed me this brightly coloured, square book called A to Z of Amazing South African Women.

Obviously, Mevrou Jacobs couldn’t see the pictures in the book. But she wanted to hear about all the women featured in it. Twenty-six strong women, doing epic things, including Caster Semenya, Quanita Adams and Yvonne Chaka Chaka.

But the best part of the book wasn’t the actual book. It was Mevrou Jacobs’ reaction to the stories that I’ll never forget. Take when I got to Lillian Ngoyi’s section, for example. All I did was say her name and Mevrou Jacobs declared, “Strike a woman and you strike a rock!”

I glanced down, and sure enough, at the end of the first full paragraph, there were those exact words.

“You already read this book, Tannie?” I asked.

“No, dear, my son bought it for me only a few weeks ago. But we didn’t have time to read it during his visit.”

“Oh, okay.”

“But I was there the day Lillian Ngoyi led me and 20 000 other women, from all different colours and backgrounds, to the amphitheatre, singing, ‘Wathint’ Abafazi Wathint’ imbokodo!'”

My jaw dropped, but she didn’t see that, just kept on talking.

“A group of friends and I had taken a bus to Pretoria to join the march. I was only 21 years old, and had never been further than 50 kilometres from home. Can you imagine? My employer was so mad he fired me. But I didn’t care. I was going to stand up for the rights of black South African women, and I did.”

“Epic,” was all I could think to say.

She nodded. “It was. It really was. The ninth of August, 1956, is a day I’ll never forget.”

I squinted at Mevrou Jacobs. If she was 21 in 1956, that meant she was 84 years old. That’s a long life, to do a lot of things. I started flipping through the pages. “Have you met any of the other women in this book, Tannie?”

Mevrou Jacobs chuckled. “I didn’t actually get to meet Lillian Ngoyi; the crowd was too big. But I did meet Cissie Gool once.”


Tell us: Are there any amazing South African women you admire? Tell us about them and why they are special to you.